When Our Memory Fails Us

When I was a lad of about six in the early 1960s, I went with my father to see my beloved Philadelphia Phillies play. At the time, my baseball hero was center fielder Tony Gonzales. Thrilled when he hit a home run to win the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, I could hardly contain myself as I reported this fact to my mother at home. But my excitement was interrupted by my mother’s assertion that it was, instead, third baseman Richie Allen who had hit the game winner. But I was there, I insisted. So were the radio announcers, she reminded me. The next day’s newspaper backed her version, of course.

But I was there. I watched it happen. How could I have gotten it wrong? The answer in that particular case is easy enough: a little kid in a park full of excited people and not a particularly careful observer of baseball mistakes #15 for #25 at a distance.

This, of course, was a simple case of mistaken identity, of a child’s lack of attention to detail. What am I to make of the following case?

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Recently I wrote a piece for another online publication in which I made a very specific claim about a statement made by Donald Trump in a debate. Because I remembered it so vividly, I did not go to check the source. This, of course, violates a basic rule of academia: check your sources to make sure your quotes are accurate. But since I said in the article what the exact context was, I knew anyone could check it out.

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby checked it out—and it didn’t check out. He couldn’t find the quote. He discreetly contacted a mutual acquaintance, who passed the query on to me. So I went back and checked the transcript. The quote wasn’t there, not even something approximating it. I watched the entire second debate, in case the transcript missed it. Nope. I read the entire transcripts of the first five debates, and listened to four of them in their entirety. Donald Trump quite simply never says what I attributed to him. (The article has been amended.)

On the one hand, this is embarrassing, not only professionally, but also because I am the one in the family who usually says to everyone else, “Well, that’s not exactly what the movie character/the Pope/your grandmother said.” On the other hand, it is a bit frightening, because I have a very vivid memory of the event. I can tell you the exact words I remember being said, and the way it was said. I can tell you the context of the quote. I can tell you the camera angle. I can tell you where I was sitting on the couch when I heard it. My family remembers me making a comment about it. But there is absolutely no evidence available that what I remember happening in the debate ever happened at all.

This is not getting something or someone mixed up with something or someone else. This is not an inaccurate prediction. This is not drawing a bad logic inference. This is not a sloppy paraphrase being passed off as a quotation because of its “truthiness.” This is me saying that Donald Trump said, and I quote, X. I have a vivid memory of something that never happened.

Suddenly, I’m Brian Williams taking gunfire in a helicopter in Iraq. This is not an experience I am eager to repeat (the quote, not the gunfire). I’ll leave it to my university’s psychologists and neuroscientists to explain how such a false memory forms in the brain. As to character development, there is something to learn from any experience, especially a humbling one.

I never should have let that “quote” get into the article without verifying it. And now some good people, and those who read their journal, pay the price because they trusted me to do all my homework.

But, to borrow a phrase: At this point, what difference does it make, really?

Getting at the truth of things can be—and probably always should be—an exercise in humility. It’s a hard lesson to learn, and is often only learned by being abjectly humbled. It is impossible to be open to the truth without it. Arrogance is never a companion to wisdom.

Thomas Aquinas notes that humility belongs to the cardinal virtue of temperance, because it tethers the “impetuosity of the emotions” (S.T. II-II, 161, 2). Humility is not possible without self-knowledge, or more precisely, “knowledge of one’s own deficiency” (S.T. II-II, 161, 4). The academic, especially, is regularly tempted by intellectual pride, and that can lead to sloth: “I don’t need to do that work, because I am so smart.”

You can see how well that turned out.

This incident—and, indeed, everyday living—puts the lie to the notion that truth is in the eye of the beholder, or that reality is what we make it to be, a construct of the human mind. Facts are stubborn things, and so are the people who know those facts and have the testimony of others, or the independent evidence, to support their claim.

This reminds us, however, that getting at the truth is not a venture for one alone. Certainly there are times when one alone discovers something. But in order to really grasp the new discovery, what it is and what it means, one must share it with others. At the same time, human beings are, generally speaking, eager to share a discovery with others; it cries out to be shared.

One of my favorite writers on such matters is Walker Percy, who discusses in The Message in the Bottle and a number of articles in Signposts in a Strange Land both the uniqueness of language to human beings, and its inherently intersubjective character. For example, Helen Keller at the pump finally grasps that the word being spelled out in her hand (W-A-T-E-R) is the name not only for all the stuff flowing over her hand, but for all the same kind of stuff, and that every instance of the word “water” means this stuff. This is the moment when she comes to know what water is, when she can separate it from other things in her environment. As Percy puts it in “Naming and Being,” she is able to “affirm the thing as being what it is under the auspices of the symbol.” But it was only possible for her to begin naming things when another namer—in this case, Annie Sullivan—gave her that possibility, and together, they named the thing. From this moment on, Helen had, not just an environment, but a world (all of the named things); her naming was true or untrue; she could live authentically (in accordance with the truth) or not. Helen becomes an eager searcher for the truth of the world, running from thing to thing, demanding to know what each is. It is the mark of entry into full human flourishing—we are driven by a need to name that is not biological, but ontological.

As we are all aware, we may have odd relationships with the truth. One common relationship, often evident in politicians, is frankly utilitarian. For such people, the truth is a phenomenon that serves their purposes. If the truth is convenient for their purposes, they hawk it; if it is not, they lie. Living in the truth is fine when it is easier, but abandoned when inconvenient.

Another way of relating to the truth is emotively, that is, people take something to be true if it matches their emotional state. They are convinced of having heard things that have not actually been said; they remember what feels right about the moment, and forget the rest. They may be so much in the thrall of their emotional states that they sincerely believe that X is true when they feel one way but, when they feel differently a half-hour later, they believe Not-X is true.

All of us are prone to a bit of this from time to time. But we will never live well if we are not surrounded by friends who are able to say, “That is not the case; you have it wrong.” And our friends’ admonitions will be useless unless we have the humility to admit that perhaps we have been wrong.

Getting at the truth is, therefore, not only critical for being human in the proper way; it is also never a task for one alone. It is a shared event. One alone may think he has gotten at the truth, but he can never be sure until he has shared his discovery with others, who verify with him the accuracy of the claim. Even then, it might be the case that they are mistaken together. One million people saying the earth is flat does not make it so. Even in groups, the truth must be approached with humility. Reality is bigger than we are, and it is not of our creation. It is precisely what it is, whether we like it or not.

If getting at the truth and living in accordance with it is critical to human flourishing, then surrounding oneself with friends who are equally concerned with the truth is equally important. Human flourishing cannot happen in a community saturated by untruth. Nor can it happen in a community led by those whose relationship with the truth is crippled. Every instance of the failure of truth diminishes us as individuals and as a community.

That is the difference it makes.


  • Stephen J. Heaney

    Stephen J. Heaney is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, MN, where he has been teaching since 1987. He received his PhD from Marquette University in 1988.

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